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Does Morality Vary By Culture?

Those of us who have grown up in a single culture (ie. almost all of us) often forget that our worldview is culturally mediated, and that people from a different culture might see things entirely differently. Not that we should be required to understand, or try to incorporate, other worldviews, but it can often be instructive to see how other cultures view things. For example, I recently read an interesting article about how morality operates in the Confucian worldview.

According to this article (and I should stipulate here that I am taking the article on face value, since it was written by an expert on the subject and published in a serious journal. I know virtually nothing about Confucianism, except what my fortune cookie tells me), in a Confucian world you cannot separate personal ethics from societal structure. The set of principles that structures society and guides the ruling classes “are mandated by Heaven, an abstract source of both natural order and human norms.” So too are personal ethics; they are part of the same system: “Heaven’s pattern for human affairs is what in fact works best, as a matter of natural logic.”

This has implications for how people should live, particularly those people who are in the power elite. The elites are held to a higher standard, because if they don’t follow Heaven’s pattern they “will inevitably undermine the basic solidarity and sense of fairness that every social order needs.” Leaders have a responsibility, to Heaven and to society, to follow the rules. If they “put their own private interests above the common interest, then they have lost their legitimacy.” Although this comes from a distinctly Eastern worldview, it is not that different than the very Western concept of noblesse oblige, or from the maxim of Spiderman’s Uncle Ben: “With great power comes great responsibility.”

However, it’s also a significant distance from the dominant Western worldview, which is one of free enterprise, in which individuals pursuing their own self-interest will be guided by Adam Smith’s mighty hand into patterns that will benefit society. In our system, there is no duty to maintain the social order and the ruling elites aren’t expected to have higher moral standards than anyone else. In the Western view, the system takes care of all that.

I’m not saying that this Confucian system is any better than ours; merely different. But it’s certainly interesting the way the worldview plays out in how individual are supposed to behave. Of course, given the willingness of Chinese executives to put poison into milk just to make an extra yuan or two, it’s not clear that the Confucian system really works.

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